For the first time in nearly a decade the Tennessee Titans entered a new season with few roster holes, and now optimism is at a decade-long high after addressing their pressing needs in the secondary and at wide receiver this offseason.
And while names like Corey Davis, Adoree’ Jackson, Logan Ryan, and Taywan Taylor will garner most of the attention this season, the lesser known upgrades to the special teams unit may be the moves that put this team over the top.
Five of Tennessee’s seven losses last season were by 8 points or less, and the Titans’ special teams unit was directly responsible for at least one. Tied at 20 apiece in Houston early in the season, the Texans returned a punt for the go ahead touchdown late in the game.
In fact, the Titans were the only team to allow 2 punt returns for touchdowns in 2016.
Tennessee’s coverage was abysmal at times, leading coach Mularkey to fire the special teams coach during the season.
Tennessee finished 18th in average yards per kick return allowed and 26th in average yards per punt return.
The Titans wasted no tine in shoring up this deficiency when they added a couple of special teams coverage aces in Brynden Trawick and Daren Bates at the start of free agency.
Tennessee also re-signed a couple of their own aces in Nate Palmer and Phillip Supernaw, giving the coverage unit a much-needed boost.
As for the return game, Marc Mariani was serviceable last season from a ball control standpoint. You knew that he would field the kickoff or punt if nothing else. But his explosiveness is all but gone after suffering a near career-ending leg injury a few years ago.
Mariani averaged just 21 yards per kick off and 8 yards per punt, with no touchdowns or field-flipping plays.
That could pose a problem for a team whose offensive identity is to methodically move the ball down the field. The fewer yards that Mariota has to travel the better.
Given this, Tennessee also signed return specialist Eric Weems (Atlanta) in the early stages of free agency. Weems is more explosive (72 yard punt return last season) and provides more of an opportunity for a home run.
In addition, rookie first round pick Adoree’ Jackson was a prolific return man while at USC, and has done some work already with the Titans fielding punts.
Jackson’s blazing speed and elusiveness, especially on punt returns, could dictate the opponent’s actions when it comes to kicking to him or not.
And usually those kick-away approaches work in the return team’s favor.
General manager Jon Robinson has done a masterful job of reshaping Tennessee’s roster the last two offseasons, bringing in a plethora of players that are now household names in Nashville.
But keep an eye out on the subtle, seemingly anonymous moves made on special teams. They are the ones that could make this a special season for Tennessee.